Friday, September 11, 2009


If the title of Ulu Grosbard's film refers to the amount of time Max Dembo spends on the straight-and-narrow following his release from parole at the start of the picture, it doesn't really describe most of the story accurately. Adapted by ex-con Edward Bunker from his own novel No Beast So Fierce, in collaboration with future Spider-Man scribe Alvin Sargent, Straight Time portrays a man who can't stay straight. Society may be to blame a little, but a lot of the responsibility sits on the man's own shoulders.

Max chafes against the rules almost immediately by refusing to check into a halfway house. This earns him some hassling from his parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh), who decides to trust Max to find his own apartment and get a job. These things he does, and he even strikes up a relationship with Jenny, the nice lady at the employment agency (Theresa Russell) who helped set him up with the job. The trouble begins when he begins looking up his old friends. One is Willy Darin (Gary Busey), an ex-con himself whose wife (a young Kathy Bates) would rather not have Max around. But Willy craves Max's company, too, especially if he can use Max's pad to shoot up without the missus knowing. Max isn't really keen on the idea, since it could earn him three more years in prison, but what are friends for?

Contradictory influences: the potential love of a good woman versus the friendship of, ... well, it's Gary Busey, for goodness' sake.

Well, they're for getting you in trouble if they're friends like Max's. The parole officer makes a routine random visit to the apartment and finds a match. He handcuffs Max to a chair while he searches for drug paraphernalia, then takes him to jail. A long sequence realistically details Max's humiliation as he has to undergo the stripping down, the showering in front of guards, and the sharing of a cell with five other cons as if it was his first time. It turns out that the parole officer was just yanking his chain, or at most trying to get him to rat out whomever he still suspects of using drugs in the apartment. After several days, he drives Max back home, but Max snaps, commandeers the car, cuffs the schmuck to a fence on the highway, pulls his pants down then leaves.

Max's exposure to humiliation is avenged upon his parole-office

Now he's a fugitive and has to go back to stealing to live. But Jenny sticks by him while admitting her growing anxiety. Her attitude is one of the intriguing aspects of the story. She's troubled by his reversion to crime, but doesn't seem morally troubled by it, only worried about his safety and the possible risk to herself, in that order. She seems to have been impressed by his remarks on prison life on a dinner date, when he explained that only in prison, as he saw it, were men valued for what they really are. She seems determined to treat him that way, with almost guileless honesty, and short of incriminating himself too specifically, he repays her in kind. Their relationship is reminiscent of film noir romances, or the sort of relationship you might see in a Jean-Pierre Melville movie, but stripped of archetypal pretension or the distancing veneer of foreign chic. Grosbard is a naturalistic director who doesn't impose a personal style on the action, and Theresa Russell gives a character who might seem too good to be true an unaffected sincerity and an unsentimental manner that keep Jenny interesting and unpredictable.

Highlights and lowlights of Max Dembo's latter-day criminal career.

Max doesn't want to live off Jenny, but wants to stay with her. His hope is to make a big score so they can both leave town. He hooks up with some other cronies (including Edward Bunker in a cameo appearance). His main accomplice is Jerry (Harry Dean Stanton), another allegedly domesticated ex-con who takes Max's reappearance as a cue to return to the criminal life. Their efforts are complicated by unreliable assistants and Max's own tendency to ignore the rigid timetables Jerry sets for their robberies. Max emerges as one of those criminals who asserts a strong sense of right and wrong that usually breaks down to a petulant rage at not getting his own way. He's quite the judgmental person, eager to tell people that they're in the wrong when he's about to beat them up or shoot them. But the film shows us that his own greed, his obsession with finding a particular piece of jewelry for Jenny, and his not knowing when to quit, are just as much to blame for a debacle that ends badly for Jerry as Willy Darin, whom Max chooses to blame for everything.

I was reminded a little of High Sierra by the ending, which has Max driving off toward the mountains after leaving Jenny behind at a diner with the loot from the jewelry heist. Again, as in comparison with noir, Straight Time deromanticizes the archetypal criminal while still trying to keep Max Dembo a sympathetic character. This takes the form of a kind of special pleading at the very end when we see a montage of Max's mug shots dating back to his teens, as if the film was saying, "What else could he do?" Maybe that's a stab at tragedy, but Bunker's own attitude as an author seemed to be to show things just as they were, nonjudgmentally. Those mug shots don't really give us the why of Max Dembo, but they arguably serve to state once and for all, as far as Bunker, Grosbard, et al are concerned, that he could be nothing else.

The DVD of Straight Time actually complicates things a little further, if I heard and saw it right. Outside the diner, loyal Jenny once more asks to stay with Max. I'm certain that I heard Max say, "You'd only get caught." Turn on the subtitles, however (as I did when it got a little loud outside) and you can read Max saying, "I want to get caught." That makes quite a difference, and it had me wondering whether I heard Max right. I might have to go to the audio commentary to get that cleared up.

I see that I've gone this far without mentioning Dustin Hoffman. Let me make up for that by saying that this is an awesome performance, one more Oscar-worthy, in my estimate, than the one he won for a year later. By this point in his career I think Straw Dogs and Marathon Man had done away with any stereotype of Hoffman as a sort of nebbish but if doubts remained Straight Time would have destroyed them. This is still the intense Hoffman of the Method, who hung out with career criminals to get the attitude and mannerisms right. I can't vouch for his authenticity, of course, but once he turned criminal again he seemed completely convincing to me. He has a cool chemistry and a mutual wary intimacy with Russell that helped me suspend disbelief in their romance. I hold Hoffman in pretty low regard these days because I feel he sold out some time ago, but watching this film reminded me of how good he really was.

The Warner DVD is a nice little package. The only extra apart from the trailer and a Grosbard-Hoffman commentary track is a TV documentary about the film, which is fascinating to look at because videotape always has a "live" look to me. It goes the extra mile by not only interviewing Edward Bunker, but also interviewing Joseph Wambaugh, who offers a sharp critique from a cop's perspective of Bunker's notion of criminal morality. It's an ideal supplement to one of the superior U.S. crime movies of the 1970s.

The Straight Time trailer was uploaded to YouTube by WorleyClarence. They sure don't promote stars now like they did back then.


Mykal said...

Samuel: I love this film. I really like your comparison to High Sierra. Both films show their respective stars, Hoffman and Bogart, to be wonderfully intense actors.

So many great performances here, as you say (my favorite was M. Emmet Walsh as the oily parole officer), but ultimately it is Hoffman's show. Who knew that Hoffman could do a credible street-slick tough guy. Well, he sure can. Love that scene when he walks through that 70s bar room like a polyester shirted king of the jungle.

Great post! I wasn’t aware that this one was finally available on DVD. It’s mine now! -- Mykal

John said...

Great review of a film that got lost in the shuffle. Hoffman was so good in this as is Theresa Russell. Nice analogy with Melville's work. Glad to know it is out on DVD. I will have to pick it up. Have not seen it since it first came out.

wiec? said...

excellent review of a movie i haven't see since high school. i've read No Beast So Fierce and other works by Edward Bunker and though from an autographical stand point he makes them interesting he never seems to fall into a glorification mode about his past exploits in crime. they just seem to be about guys (like Dembo) who have crime in their blood and that's just the way it is. either way i happen to like that type of narrative where the "bad guy" is a "protagonist" of the story.

also a lots happened since i first saw Mykal and John I'd like to give it a re watch too. not knowing who Ed Bunker was when i saw it way back when it'll be like seeing it again for the first time. also it would be good to see Hoffman at the height of his powers, Theressa Russell and Gary Busey before he became crazy Gary DrugaBusey even though he's an addict in this one. he was so talented back then.

Samuel Wilson said...

This seems to have been a stealth DVD release for a film that's more underrated than it should be. I'm glad to have brought its appearance to my readers' attention.